A Political Biography :  K. S. Fonia

By R S Tolia • Contemporary Uttarakhand • 28 Jan 2016

Dehradun. Completion of fifteen years of Uttarakhand in November 2015 has already seen some daily newspapers’ editions coming out with special issues commemorating this major milestone of Uttarakhand history ( Uttarakhand Udai of Amar Ujala ) and some more events are expected to be organized before the end of fiscal year 2015. Documenting current events and history is a process which calls for both a sense of history as well as a certain diligence that few of us really care about or are competent enough to indulge in. While the administrative and institutional memory get automatically documented through a process of creation of records like the official files, minutes and proceedings, what remains beyond this extremely important process is the political history, as experienced and played out by its practitioners namely, our politicians. Biographies in any case get attempted by only those who have a lived a life full of events, events that matter and details of which may be of some public significance. Among biographies autobiographies occupy a special position and given the very nature of real-politic in our country publication of a political autobiography have always been a matter of celebration. To this writer a major gap that has persisted in the contemporary narrative of this new state relates to a political account of events as they have un-folded after 9th November 2000 onwards. A political biography brought out by an active practitioner, who has held a central position in major events, is an invaluable contribution to the authoritative writing of a state’s history as it provides an irrefutable framework within which other details could be filled-in by other players.                                                                                                                                                                      

Seven Decades on Radar ( 1942 – 2014 )

The autobiography which is being reviewed in this piece has been authored by an 85 years old well-known politician of Uttarakhand, Kedar Singh Fonia.  It covers a period of slightly more than seven decades, including eight years of our pre-Independence era. As the author hails from a well-known tribal valley of this state, Niti, belonging to an eminent sub-tribe, Fonia, which had a major role in the age-old trade with neighbouring western Tibet. The author has had an early exposure to public-service, who took a calculated risk in jumping into the political fray and tasting fruits of power, both in UP and the new state, ending this experience on a rather savoury note – makes the entire narrative a unique document. In between, his prolonged rendezvous with the tourist destinations of the world, commencing with his very first appointment in Benaras ( 1956 ) and ending with coverage of several European destination, facilitated by his son’s foreign postings in the French Embassy, Switzerland being the piece de resistance ( 2003-05 ). Kedar Singh’s forte has been tourism and that gets reflected from his autobiography, from the beginning to the very end. His exposure of the tourist sector has indeed been exceptional, commencing with the post of a Tourist Information Assistant in 1956, he rose to the position of an Assistant Director in 1962 and chucking a government job in 1965, while on deputation to ITDC, in New Delhi. Facing defeat in his first foray into elective politics he was forced to look out for a secured job in 1971. Newly created UP Parvatiya Vikas Nigam found him as its first Divisional Manager Tourism and he rose to become its General Manager in 1973. Year 1974 saw this Corporation split into two Corporations during ND Tewari’s Chief Ministership, and the Divisional Corporations came directly under the respective Commissioners of Garhwal and Kumaon. The Garhwali and Kumaoni split-politics can be safely traced back to this period, when any step taken for developing one region had to be simultaneously compensated by a countervailing step in the other! Thus the Kumaon-Garhwal politics, now much in the background, received its first hormonal injection in the 1970s and was to continue for the next three decades, till its internalisation into Uttaranchal/Uttarakhand during ( 2000-2006 ) phase. Indeed in the very first Cabinet meeting, chaired by Nityanand Swami, though not mentioned by the author , held on 24 November 2000 ( see page 221-222 ) some discussion also took place on how to merge these two political identities into a single one, that of a dynamic an forward looking Uttaranchal. While the euphoric atmosphere of this First Cabinet meeting has been captured in this biography, many other significant discussions like Chief Minister Swami offering to discontinue discreditable traditions like the Chief Minister retaining certain privileges like retention of a house ( Kalidas Marg residences of ex CMs in Lucknow), now a matter taken up under a PIL filed with the Naini Tal High Court, or doing away with the security escort while travelling within the state, not supported by any other Cabinet Ministers present, including Minister KS Fonia himself, after Minister Nirupama Gaur opposed it rather vehemently remain quite vivid in the imagination of other participants of this historic Cabinet Meeting, including this writer. Besides the members of the first Cabinet, the other witnesses of this historic moment were the then Chief Secretary Ajai Vikram Singh, Madhukar Gupta and this writer, as mentioned. It is the details and public domain disclosures of these invaluable nuggets of history that lies buried deep unless narratives such as this biography bring them to surface. This aspect of writing any biography, more so a political biography, has not been emphasized adequately, and it is this gap that has been so comprehensively filled-up by Kedar Singh’s book. It is fervently hoped that triggered by this book many fillers will make their grade now and start bridging the gap.                                                                                                                                                

A Source of History

Minister Fonia’s commendable account makes a most valuable account where he shares with the readers as he remembers his childhood days ( 1942-44 ) and in the first ten chapters he takes his readers through into the habitat from where his origins lay. Overlooking a few statements like the description of Kedar valley in 1829, accounted to some Captain Skinner made to visit Kedarnath and having mentioned 15,000 visitors and the tradition of ending their this worldly life jumping over Mahapanth ( following the Pandavas Swarga-rohan story ), which is actually ascribable to the second Commissioner George William Trail ( 1815-35, The Statistical Sketches of Kumaon, Asiatic Researches, 1829 ) the biography sheds invaluable light on some little-known and important aspects of the ancient Tibetan trade, the socio-economic infrastructural conditions that prevailed in those border tracts, connection between the Kunwars of Kanwa and the Fonia’s who had a privileged position in commencing the trade every year, how in independent India such old privileges being questioned by others, the role that has been played by educational institutions established by the Methodist Missionaries ( Mesmore Inter College, Pauri ), relations with western Tibet and border policing as undertaken by the Special Police Force ( SPF ) raised for the task from the UP Armed Police, popularly called the PAC. This intimate connect with the western Tibet, especially the role that the author’s family and co-tribes fellow played in it, surfaced when he first batted for its re-opening, as a Minister in 2001 and again, through Chief Minister Narain Dutt Tewari, the then Chief Minister in April 2005. That such a letter will not get written by a Nishank or a Khanduri, or for that matter even a Koshyari through a Chief Minister belonging to a rival political party, stresses the need for having a thing called ‘empathy’ and that comes only when one rises from the roots, and not lands via a ‘para-shoot’! These narratives lend the account its human touch and it is this aspect that comes out as its strongest point ( page 41 ). This account has several vignettes covering family members and close relations ( pages 17, 27,  33 ), travel experiences of Tibet trade (  32-39 ), Hindu religious impact on the valley people and its vicious grip ( the Bachi Ram episode ) and the assistance that he received during his days of struggle ( pages 57-59 ).           

The Political Innings ( 1991-2012 )

After retiring in October 1988 as its General Manager from ITDC at an advance age of 58 years, how Fonia was approached by Dr Nityanand and Mohan Singh ‘Gramvasi’, the latter later becoming a Minister himself, for contesting the Pauri MP seat, as the author happened to bank of some 10,000 tribals of Chamoli district, how BC Khanduri jumped into the political fray after Vijay Bahuguna, his maternal cousin failed to surmount the Satpal Mahraj obstacle ( Fonia suspects Vijay Bahuguna breaking the news to Khanduri himself, p . 160 ) and several other accounts make for a gripping tale of modern political history of this mountain state. While many a fact were well known but through this account they get a validation, that only such an account can stamp for authenticity. The subsequent narrative covering right from his utter surprise when he received the news of his BJP candidature for Badri-Kedar seat through newspapers ( p.  161 ), Dr MM Joshi batting for Khanduri, Fonia’s sartorial transformation from western to kurta-pajama, joint entry into politics by Fonia and Khanduri on the 27th April  1991 and Fonia’s first win by more than 6,000 votes’ margin  to its sad denouement, ending with Chief Minister Khanduri keeping him out of his Cabinet in 2007, favouring Independent MLA  Rajendra Singh Bhandari ( page 255 ), covering a period of 16 years, is something that would stand as an object lesson for any political aspirant, especially when one belongs to a marginal section of the society ! It is hardly a narrative that is likely to gladden the heart of any political career aspirant and through this story the author perhaps paints a contemporary degeneration in public life, a cess-pool, out of which no one emerges un-scathed. This frank political narrative is bound to get quoted for a long time to come and does no credit to any political player, who appears in this disgusting political drama ( pages  253 – 263 ). Khanduri-Nishank-Khanduri phase (  2007-2009-2012 ) has been very boldly covered in as many as three chapters and no punches have been held back by the author. Ironically, the post 2012 developments, with the author joining hands with General Rawat’s Raksha Morcha, Khanduri-Fonia meeting at a wedding after BJP’s defeat under Khanduri’s stewardship in 2012 ( p 273 ) and author’s tragic terminal innings at the real-politic with the merger of the Raksha Morcha with the Aam Admi Party ( AAP ), brings  curtains down over an engrossing Shakespeareneque ( political ) tragedy.

New Revelations

Biographies have often been compared to the proverbial sea-beach attire – the Bikinis – revealing more than they try to hide. This indeed is the task that the author leaves to the readers, the ‘other players’ who played their respective roles during the period covered ( 2000- 2012 ). It would be very interesting to read what the likes of Nishanks, Koshiyaris and Khanduris have to say by way of their side of the story. The first stone has been thrown into the murky cess-pool of this states’ getting-murkier-by-the-day political scenario. The bold narrative does omit to mention the final round of selection of the first Chief Minister, of an elected State Assembly, in which the final call lay with LK Advani, the Home Minister, with whom they had the final audience. One, of course, was the author himself and the other, ‘who came out of nowhere’, as all political commentators quipped during the wee-hours of 9th November, 2000, at the Parade Ground Swearing-in Ceremony, boycotted by Koshyari and Nishank. ( p.220 ). This author recalls vividly this Koshyari-Nishank boycott was preceded by an interview of Fonia and Nityanand Swami, where a politically naive Fonia was outsmarted by a wily political strategist, Nityanand Swami. As the In Charge of the entire Swearing- in- Ceremony, till the very last day, this writer had no clue as to who was to be sworn in, and more importantly at which venue and at what time ? So, as many as two Plans had been chalked out, one at 12 .05 sharp, first Governor Designate Barnala by a Senior UP High Court Judge, earmarked for the swearing –in ceremony of the First Governor, who was to administer oath of office to the  Chief Minister designate. It was quite late in the day that the designate Chief Minister contacted this writer that the swearing in ceremony would be held during the day time on the 9th November. This writer was given to understand that at the stroke of 12 on the 8th night, while all Uttarakhand Treasuries would start next day  with a ZERO Balance, the rule of Uttar Pradesh would come to an end and the swearing- in has got to be held latest before 1230. Designate CM Swami would not listen to this proposal and informed that he would get it confirmed after informing LK Advani himself. Joint Secretary RK Singh, who was working in tandem with this writer, was sounded about this development and he assured that he would ensure that Swami himself speaks to this writer and confirms that the swearing-in ceremony will take place exactly at 12.05 am, as planned. Within no time designate Chief Minister confirmed that the swearing in indeed would take place at 12.05 am sharp ( and sharp means sharp, he repeated !). It was Swami himself who disclosed to this writer that both Fonia and Swami were with LK Advani, before the Finalist broke the news to this writer.

Tail-piece: What comes as a total surprise from this narrative is the fact of the author ( Fonia ) having been denied the ultimate political reward, the Chief Minister-ship the second time over, after the BJP High Command had taken a decision to remove Nityanand Swami in favour of KS Fonia — as someone who hailed from the mountain region, on the eve of the first Assembly elections in 2002. The High Command was sold an idea that unless a Chief Minister from the mountain region was not installed the BJP was bound to lose the first Assembly elections. That Koshyari and Nishank got the decision upturned purely on the ground that as Fonia was neither a Brahmin nor a Thakur but a Scheduled Tribe, a BJP win was unlikely ( p. 228 ). Both Koshyari and Nishank, after this sordid revelation, now owe it to all the non-Brahmin and non-Thakur populations, and the populations of non-hilly regions, explain how they could stoop as low and sold this unspeakable theory successfully to even statesmen like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, as revealed by this book ( p. 228 ). It is a hugely damaging revelation from an ex BJP senior Minister and as the biography gets read by the populations about whom such humiliating opinions get sugar-coated, in the inner party circles, these electorates are bound to get hugely disillusioned by the shenanigans of our petty-minded politicians, in which ever hue and guise they appear, come 2017. This biography, if anything, is one of the saddest stories where Caste considerations and regional divide, that seems to undermine the commitment, dedication and enthusiasm with which the marginalized sections and others ( the non-hilly region people ) had thrown themselves  to the task of state-building, as an integral part of the nation building. Many political careers are bound to get impacted by the revelations this biography makes and will have a cathartic consequences. Fonia could not have been more forthright – full marks for his courageous revelations. A must read by all Uttarakhandis, as this is one of the few mirrors, which reflects our society’s true face. Published by the author himself a 291 page autobiography has been modestly priced at 250 rupees – it is good political treatise as a literary –gift.

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